The high-flyers

Who will be the next Biontech? The success of the Mainz-based vaccine developer has shone a new light on the start-up scene in Frankfurt RheinMain.

Weiterstadt just outside Darmstadt, 25,000 inhabitants and a large industrial estate. In front of an abandoned-looking industrial building, the voice from the navigation system says: “You have reached your destination.” Can this really be the headquarters of a company that’s luring investors from Silicon Valley? A couple of hipsters leaving the site are the only clue to what might lie within it. “Until recently, this site belonged to a well-known e-bike manufacturer, but they needed more space. We’ve just moved in,” says Thomas Dreiling, Press Spokesperson at Wingcopter.

In the entrance area Thomas Dreiling points to a drone and moves one of the four swiveling rotors. “These enable the Wingcopter to take off vertically and shift smoothly to forward flight,” Dreiling explains. The innovative flying machine combines the best qualities of a helicopter with those of a fixed-wing aircraft and is winning fans with its top features: start and landing with a minimal footprint, and definitely without a runway or ramp, speed of 150 km/h, range of 120 kilometers, payload of six kilos. All this opens up entirely new avenues in logistics.

The high-tech device was invented by Jonathan Hesselbarth, who spent a large part of his childhood and youth on an airfield as his parents were passionate glider pilots; no surprise that he began building model aircraft at an early age. He was later inspired by the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, a vast tilt-rotor convertible aircraft with vertical take-off and landing capability. Surely it’s possible to do it more easily, Hesselbarth thought, and the idea for the Wingcopter was born.

The mechanical engineering student teamed up with Tom Plümmer, who had built up an income stream for himself during his studies with a drone start-up for filming. They were later joined by industrial engineer Ansgar Kadura. Now, the three founders employ 135 people and have already developed the second generation Wingcopter, the W 198, with the number representing its wingspan.

The new model is set to bring about the commercial break­through. It has eight rotors, is optimized according to aviation standards, and incorporates redundancy, meaning that when one unit fails, a second takes over. The Wingcopter has already passed a series of endurance tests from the South Seas to the Arctic; it is now patent-protected in all the important global markets. “We could ramp up production next year to 1,000 units,” says Thomas Dreiling.

The company’s chances are looking good. Wingcopter recently announced a strategic partnership with Air Methods, a leading American air rescue service that wants to open up a new area of business with a new subsidiary, using drones to transport urgent medical items such as drugs, blood reserves, blood samples or organ donations. This is where Wingcopter can play to its strengths because the delivery drones are faster than cars and cheaper than helicopters.

Will Wingcopter be the next Biontech? The global success of the innovative Corona vaccine developer from Mainz has really spotlighted the start-up scene in Frankfurt RheinMain. There is even a unicorn among them, i.e., a start-up that is worth more than one billion US Dollars at its so-called exit. Biotech start-up MYR from Bad Homburg was acquired by US pharmaceuticals giant Gilead for 1.15 billion Euros in 2020.

Others are well established, such as mattress supplier Emma from Frankfurt. “The Sleep Company” was founded in 2015 and is now active in 26 countries with sales of over 400 million Euros. The Duisburg-based Haniel family, long-standing industrialists, acquired over 50 percent of the shares in 2020. Some start-ups are on the rise. Frankfurt-based fintech Clark, for example, is considered one of Germany’s fastest-growing digital companies. It offers its users the opportunity to manage, compare and improve their insurance policies digitally. In early 2021, Chinese tech group Tencent got involved.

The start-up scene in Frankfurt RheinMain is very diverse. The focus is on technology in the vicinity of the TU Darmstadt and on fintech in the shadow of Frankfurt’s banking towers. One of the drivers of the development is Sebastian Schäfer. The CEO of Frankfurt’s TechQuartier, one of the leading start-up and innovation hubs in Germany, sits in a meeting room on a sprawling floor of a high-rise close to the exhibition site, and breaks down the figures: “40 percent of our 420 start-ups come from Frankfurt and the region and 60 percent from Germany and the rest of the world.”

Around 30 to 35 percent are in the fintech sector. “The city boasts both fintech talents and the demand from companies for innovations,” writes “Startup Genome”, the globally leading American consultancy and research company for innovation policy. “More than 50 percent of the local venture capital investments flowed into fintech start-ups between 2012 and 2017.” On top of this, “Startup Genome” attests to the region’s exceptional strength in cyber security.  

Sebastian Schäfer aims to develop the entire ecosystem in Frankfurt RheinMain and always keeps an eye on the big picture. “Our core function is that of an innovation broker,” says Schäfer. “We provide established industry with new technologies and business models, and we orchestrate the processes between start-ups and companies, public institutions and universities.”

His latest major project is the “Financial Big Data Cluster” (FBDC). As part of the Gaia-X initiative instigated by the Federal Government, the EU is working on a cross-thematic European data infrastructure in order to become more independent from American and Chinese providers. For this, the TechQuartier has teamed up with numerous renowned partners from industry, research, and politics as part of a research project (safeFBDC) to develop new AI-based methods based on five different use cases.  “This safeFBDC is a milestone for our regional ecosystem activities,” says Schäfer. “With this initiative, in future we will be able to give the 134 AI start-ups established thus far in the TechQuartier access to a unique financial data ecosystem – with the very best prerequisites for the development of future-proof AI innovations and data-driven business models.“

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